Wednesday, October 18, 2006
THE HYMN OF THE PEARL
Translated from Syriac by Brian Colless
* 1 *
When as a little child I dwelt
in my father's palace in my kingdom,
content I was with the luxury and riches
of those who saw to my upbringing.
Then from our homeland the East
my parents sent me forth equipped;
from the riches in our treasure store
they made me an abundant load;
large it was and yet so light
I could carry it by myself:
there was gold from Beth-‘Ellâyê,
silver from noble Gazak;
there were rubies from the Indies,
agates from Beth-Kushân;
and they girded me with adamant,
which pulverizes iron.
* 2 *
They took my shining robe away,
which they in their love had made for me,
and likewise the scarlet toga,
measured and woven to my stature.
A covenant they made with me,
writing it on my heart lest it be forgotten:
If you will go down into Egypt
and bring out a certain pearl,
the one in the midst of the ocean,
hard by the hissing serpent,
then you shall wear your shining robe again,
and the toga that goes over it,
and with your brother, our next in rank,
you shall be heir in our kingdom.
* 3 *
I left the East and wended my way down,
having two guardians with me,
for the journey was perilous and difficult,
and I so young to set out on it.
I passed through the borders of Maishan,
resort of the Orient's merchants;
I arrived in the land of Babylon,
and entered the walls of Sarbug.
I went right down into Egypt,
and my guides then parted from me.
I made my way straight to the serpent
and lodged close by his lair,
waiting till he slumbered in sleep,
when I would take my pearl from him.
* 4 *
I was solitary and alone,
a stranger to those I lived with.
Then one of my own kind, a freeman,
someone from the East, I saw there,
a comely and gracious lad,
a consecrated person, who joined me;
I made him my intimate friend,
and took him as partner in my pursuits.
I warned him against the Egyptians,
against joining with the unclean.
Yet I myself wore their manner of dress,
lest they abhorred me
for coming from outside to take the pearl away,
and lest they stirred up the serpent against me.
But by some means or other they perceived
I was not a fellow-countryman.
They dealt with me deceitfully;
they gave me their food to taste.
* 5 *
I forgot I was a son of kings,
and I served a king of theirs;
I forgot as well the pearl
for which my parents had sent me.
With the heaviness of their foodstuffs,
I sank deep into sleep.
But all the things that befell me my parents perceived,
and they grieved over me.
Proclamation was made in our kingdom,
that all should hasten to our gate,
the kings and princes of Parthia,
and all the nobles of the East.
They drew up a plan for my sake,
that I might not be left in Egypt;
and then they wrote a letter to me,
and each noble signed his name to it.
* 6 *
From your father, the king of kings,
and your mother, mistress of the East,
and from your brother our second in rank,
to you, our son in Egypt, greeting!
Awake and rise up from your sleep,
and listen to the words of our letter.
Remember you are a son of kings;
look at your bondage to the one you now serve.
Call to mind the pearl,
for which you were sent into Egypt.
Be mindful of your shining robe,
and think of your splendid toga,
which you shall wear to adorn yourself,
when your name is called in the honour roll,
when you and your brother our viceroy
are together again in our kingdom.
* 7 *
My letter was an epistle
that the king sealed with his right hand,
to protect it from the wicked Babylonians
and the cruel demons of Sarbug.
It flew in the form of an eagle,
the king of all winged creatures;
it flew and alighted beside me,
and became entirely speech.
At its voice and the sound of its rustling
I started and rose from my sleep.
I took it up and kissed it,
I broke its seal and read it;
in line with what was inscribed on my heart
the words of my letter were written.
I remembered I was a son of kings;
my free-born nature asserted itself.
I remembered too the pearl,
for which I had been sent into Egypt.
So I commenced to work enchantments
on the fearsome hissing serpent.
I hushed him and lulled him into slumber,
pronouncing my father's name over him,
and the name of our second in rank,
and of my mother, queen of the East.
I snatched up the pearl,
and turned to go home to my father.
Their filthy abominable clothing I stripped off
and left in their country;
I directed my course to bring me
to the light of our homeland, the East.
* 9 *
My letter, which was my awakener,
I found ahead of me on the way;
and as with its voice it had woken me,
so now with its light it was leading me.
Enwrapped in silk as it was,
it shone before me with its form,
while with its voice and with its guidance,
it encouraged me to make haste,
and with its love it drew me on.
I went on my way beyond Sarbug,
and passed by Babylon on my left.
Then I came to Maishan the noble,
that haven of the traffickers
which sits on the shore of the sea.
* 10 *
My shining robe which I had taken off,
and my toga with which it was covered,
from the heights of Hyrcania
my parents had sent to me there,
by the agency of their treasurers,
whose honesty they could trust.
I had not remembered its fashion,
having left it with my father in childhood;
suddenly, as I encountered the garment,
it seemed like a mirror of myself.
I beheld its all in my own all,
and I encountered my own all in it;
for though we were two in distinction
we were still one, in one likeness.
* 11 *
The treasurers too, who brought it to me,
I saw in the very same way,
that they were two yet one in likeness,
for one sign of the king was marked on both,
by his own hands, who returned through them
my deposit and my wealth,
my bright ornamented robe,
adorned with glorious colours,
with gold and beryls,
with rubies and agates,
and the sardonyx of varied hues,
it had also been fashioned on high;
and with stones of adamant
its every seam was fastened;
and the image of the king of kings
was all embroidered over it;
and like the sapphire jewel
were its manifold colours.
* 12 *
And now I saw that all over it
impulses of knowledge were stirring,
and I saw it preparing itself to give forth utterance.
I heard the sound of its tones,
as it murmured on its way down:
I am his who is diligent in doing,
for whom I was brought up before my father;
truly I have been aware in myself
that my size has been growing with his labours.
Moving in its regal manner
it was giving itself completely to me,
and on the hands of its presenters,
it was impatient for me to receive it.
For my part I was impelled by love
to run to meet it and take it.
* 13 *
I stretched out my hand and accepted it;
I adorned myself in its beauteous colours;
my toga with its lustrous colours
I wrapped right around myself.
Thus clothed I made my way up
to the gate of greeting and homage;
I bowed my head and made adoration
to its sender, the splendour of my father;
for I had carried out his orders,
and he had done what he had promised.
Standing at the gate of his princes,
I mingled with his noblemen,
for he rejoiced and welcomed me back,
and I was now with him in his kingdom.
With the voice of glorification
all his servants were praising him;
he promised that I would again be brought
with him to the gate of the king of kings,
and with my present and my pearl,
I would appear with him before our king.
This exquisite poem, untitled but known as the Hymn of the Pearl (or the Hymn of the Soul), is preserved in the Syriac language, and also in Greek. It is found embedded in an Eastern Christian work entitled The Acts of Judas Thomas, which tells the story of the missionary labours of the Apostle Thomas (Doubting Thomas) in India. Whether Saint Thomas ever went to India is not certain, but the tradition in India itself is very strong. The poem appears at a point in the tale where the Apostle Thomas is in prison, and, like the Apostles Paul and Barnabas in a similar situation, he sings a hymn.
Long ago, swimming against the tide of scholarly opinion, I decided it was a Christian allegory with countless allusions to the Bible.
The usual interpretation of the poem characterizes it as Gnostic: it portrays the doctrine of the descent of the soul, found in the various schools of religious thought that are lumped together under the category Gnosticism (the 'New Age' religions of the first Millennium of the current era). The soul descends from the heavenly realm and is imprisoned in the bonds of a fleshly body, but by special knowledge, gnosis, it finds salvation and returns to its home on high. The pearl would be the symbol of gnosis here. The prince would be the soul descending from the realm of light to the land of darkness and corruption, here symbolized by Egypt. The robe is possibly the higher self with which the soul is reunited on its return to its homeland. On this view, however, the prince could also represent the Saviour who comes to earth and is confronted with temptation, but becomes 'the saved saviour'.
That is one interpretation; but in my view the poem is an allegory of the Christian life, according to the teachings of the Apostles, in a Persian setting. The background is clearly Iranian: the kingdom in the East is the Parthian Empire (as opposed to the Roman Empire in the West); Hyrkania (Syriac Wirkan) is specifically mentioned (see the Bisitun inscription of Darius, 35, where it is part of the Persian Empire). The sovereign is the 'king of kings', a characteristically Iranian title (Shahan Shah), though borrowed from the Assyrians, and appropriated by Christians for their God. Here is the first clue for a Christian interpretation: God the King of kings is said to dwell in the realm of light (1 Timothy 6:15-16). Another clear hint is the 'light load' (stanza 1), referring to the light burden offered by Jesus (Matthew 11:30).
What we have, then, is a 'Pilgim's Progress' allegory based on the New Testament parables of 'the prodigal son' (Luke 15:11-32) and 'the pearl merchant' (Matthew 13:45-46), with numerous allusions to the Letter to the Hebrews and other books of the Bible.
The Prince is the Christian believer, a son of God (John 1:12), a younger brother of Christ (Hebrews 2:11).
The Father is God the Father, and the Mother is the Holy Spirit (a feature of Syriac Christian belief, since the word for 'spirit' is feminine, and appears as 'she', not 'it', in Romans 8:14-17 in the Syriac Bible).
The Eagle (masculine) is also the Holy Spirit, as the Paraklete or Advocate, who reminds (John 14:26) and guides (John 16:13). The letter brought by the eagle would be the Scriptures, revealed through the Holy Spirit.
Jesus Christ appears in three guises:
first, as the Son (Hebrews 1:2,5), the elder brother (Heb 2:11-13), the second in rank to the king (Heb 1:3);
second, the freeman in Egypt (4), the 'consecrated one' ('Christ', cp. Heb 1:9, 23:14-17);
third, 'the splendour' of the father (13), a reference to Christ as 'the effulgence of God's glory' (Heb 1:3).
Satan, of course, is lurking everywhere, as the serpent (Revelation 12:9, Heb 2:14-15), and also as the king of Egypt (Ezekiel 29:3).
The prince's guardians are guardian angels (Matthew 18:10, Heb 1:13-14). The two treasurers who bring his robes (11) might be the heavenly Christ and the Holy Spirit (both had the sign of the king on them, meaning members of the Divine Trinity, the Christian Godhead?); or possibly Moses and Elijah who were present when Jesus was transfigured and his garments became dazzling white (Matthew 17:1-8).
The covenant written on the heart (2), is the new covenant ratified by Christ's blood (Heb 8:10, 10:16; Jeremiah 31:31-34).
The pearl symbolizes faith, rather than knowledge or gnosis; knowledge is explicitly associated with the robe (12). To find the pearl one must enter into the water, where the serpent is (2), and this signifies baptism. The formula for baptism is 'in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit', and this is echoed in the poem (8), where the usual order of Father, mother, brother (6) is deliberately changed to fit this formula.
The shining robe involves knowledge, of Christ, and when the prince puts it in he is the 'new person' of which Paul speaks (Ephesians 4:22-24; Colossians 3:9-10), 'in the image of God'; the robe has the image of the king of kings on it.
The lustrous scarlet toga must not be overlooked; it corresponds to the scarlet robe worn by Jesus (Mat 27:28), a symbol of the Atonement; the covenant of Moses involved animal blood and scarlet wool (Heb 9:12,19); the new covenant is by 'the blood of Christ' (Heb 9:14, 13:20). It is Christ who conducts the Christian into the presence of God and it is his 'offering' which opens the way, in 'full assurance of faith' (Heb 10:10-14, 19-22), and this happens at the end of the poem, when the prince has his 'present' or 'offering' and his pearl of faith, and accompanied by his elder brother he goes into the throneroom of the king (13). This scene of rejoicing is an echo of the entry into the heavenly Jerusalem through the blood of Christ's self-sacrifice (Heb 12:22-24).
If this interpretation is correct, then the poem could hardly be Gnostic, since Gnostics are saved by gnosis, esoteric knowledge, not by blood sacrifice.
For more details of my proposed solution to the puzzle of the poem, go to: